By Elizabeth Tammi
Susan Beckham Zurenda is no stranger to the publishing industry. After a decades-long career in teaching writing and literature, she became a book publicist managing media relations for Magic Time Literary Publicity. She also set to work on expanding a short story she’d previously written, which would become her debut novel Bells for Eli.
Releasing from Mercer University Press on March 2, 2020, this novel explores the complicated and passionate relationship between cousins Delia and Eli. As they come of age in South Carolina during the 1960s, a devastating accident in Eli’s youth permanently shifts the trajectory of both their families’ lives—and their own roles to one another.
Already, Bells for Eli has earned plenty of praise, including its selection as a Winter 2020 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. Zurenda’s previous writings have also garnered several accolades, like the South Carolina Fiction Prize and the Jubilee Writing Competition.
Zurenda was kind enough to reflect on her extensive career and the upcoming release of her debut novel.
As an experienced teacher of English, what did your time in the classroom help you learn about creative writing?
Helping students engage in literature for 33 years convinced me that there is no field of study any more important. It brings knowledge, satisfaction, and wisdom. Literature reveals truths about what it means to be human more than any other discipline. It forces us to see as others see, to feel as others feel, to connect others’ experience to ourselves and thereby achieve greater understanding (the good, the bad, and the ugly) of our own human nature.
Teaching literature has encouraged my own writing on many levels. I’ll mention a couple. First, is the inspiration. The fulfillment that reading great literature brings to me made me want to also write about the human experience. Also, analyzing literature with students for so many years continually exposed me to the how and why of characters’ lives and conditions. There is no greater teacher for writing fiction than teaching fiction.
What were some of the first story aspects or moments in Bells for Eli that came to you?
The genesis of Bells for Eli was a short story titled “Law’s Passage” that won the South Carolina Fiction Project a number of years ago. That story stayed with me and began to expand over the years into a more comprehensive rendering of a young boy’s experiences. The novel is inspired by a tragic incident that happened to my first cousin, Danny, who drank Red Devil Lye when he was very young. He survived the accident, but his life was forever changed. I began to imagine a boy growing up with physical limitations and disfigurement, confronting the cruelties and bullies of his world. At some point I decided to give the character I named Eli a close companion who would defend him no matter what. Thus, Delia was born, and the novel began.
Are you an extensive outliner, or do you go into your first drafts before plotting out the whole story?
Since I am, by nature, a planner, I thought I should have an extensive outline, and I spent a lot of time in this initial stage. But my book had its own plan for me. From the beginning, I knew what the content of the opening chapter and the penultimate chapter would be. I intended to use my outline to flesh out the intervening chapters, believing I’d figure out how to write the final chapter when I got there. But that’s not what happened. After about the third chapter, I abandoned the outline. I did know a few particular scenes I wanted, but mostly I let the characters lead me into their lives. Most enjoyable were moments when the characters’ situations seemed to appear and develop on the page unbidden. I loved the moments when I would reread the next day what I’d written the evening before, and say to myself, “Now where did that come from?” That mysterious process stuns and delights me.
What has your time working in literary publicity taught you about the publishing industry that you think not many readers might know?
For someone who has spent a lifetime reading, and who had a long career appreciating (often with awe, I might add) and teaching literature, I was completely naïve about the “business” of literature. I had little notion of the complex process of publishing and promotion until I became media relations manager at Magic Time Literary Publicity. I have learned it doesn’t just take a village; it takes a metropolis, and a lot of determination to bring a book into the world. In my role as a book publicist, I have worked with wonderful people (including a fine publisher, a spectacular agent, and the president at Magic Time Literary Publicity) who have helped me along my path to publishing Bells for Eli.
Why did you want to write about a socially taboo relationship?
It’s not that I wanted to write about romantic feelings developing between first cousins. In fact, I didn’t know Delia and Eli’s relationship was going in that direction until it happened. They have an unbreakable bond in childhood that advances into adolescence, each wanting to protect the other; it’s something close to unconditional love. One night when they drive home after a dance, and Eli parks the car to tell Delia a secret about himself and a girl he dated—believing the revelation might keep his beloved cousin from a similar fate—these cousins showed me their feelings. It was a natural evolution neither I nor they could escape.
Beyond the physical setting, what do you think defines “Southern fiction” as a genre?
Though you’ve asked what defines a Southern novel besides the physical setting, I have to mention place because it’s essential in a Southern novel. The circumstances could not take place in the same way anywhere else. Southern characters are deeply affected by their setting and atmosphere. Also, tradition, protocol, and mores are prominent in Southern novels, whether the characters live low, middle, or high class lives. In my own writing, “letting go,” is a recurrent theme, and similar themes of loss and recovery are frequent in Southern literature. Home and family tend to be a large presence in Southern novels and characters’ connection to their past either individually or with the South in general is often powerful. Some of my favorite Southern authors such as Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor also use gothic elements and bizarre personalities to deepen meaning.
Who was your favorite character to write?
This is one tough question! I liked creating all the characters. I missed them a great deal when I finished writing the book. But now that I’m going on book tour, I’ll get to visit with them often. I particularly liked watching Mary Lily come to life because I’ve never known anyone quite like her. But I guess if I’m pressed, I’ll say my main characters are my favorite. It’s not a matter of liking one more than the other; what I like best is who they are together.
To you, what is the most enjoyable and the most difficult part of the writing or pre-publication process?
I like having written! I typically write in the evenings, and I like rereading the pages I wrote the evening before to see where the characters are headed. Starting drafts makes me nervous, but if I’m lucky, I get in the zone and let go of my inner critic during the drafting phase. I actually like the revision process when I can go back and work on the language; that is, unless I get stuck for an hour on one sentence (which does happen).
Have you always wanted to be an author, or was this a dream you discovered later in life?
I have always liked to write and was a voracious reader throughout my childhood and adolescence, but I didn’t consider becoming an author until college when I became interested in journalism and was the co-editor of my college newspaper. A great deal of my time and energy during my youth was devoted to the piano. I entered college as a music major, but a class I took in Southern Literature began to change my direction. At some point, I realized I loved reading and writing about literature more than I wanted to be a piano major (though I love music and am grateful for all that I learned during my many years of devotion to playing the piano). Initially, I dreaded writing English essays because I was terrified of being able to write well about literature. Eventually, though, I gained more confidence. My first job out of college was as a newspaper reporter for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. Sometimes, during downtime when I wasn’t out interviewing or writing a news or feature article at my typewriter, I’d pull out a short story I’d started. I never tried to publish my first story (it was amateurish), but it got me started writing fiction. And I did actually use an idea in that story I’d titled “The Hayride” for a scene in Bells for Eli.
What do you hope readers can learn from Delia and Eli?
Bells for Eli is a story of relationships and family dynamics, and I hope the story encourages readers to ponder the strengths and weaknesses inherent in all of us, especially the particular trials young people confront, no matter what generation (Baby Boomer, Generation X, Millennials, or what have you) they are born into. Certainly, Eli has more adversity to overcome than most young people, but there are deficiencies and flaws in the individual characters around him, and the overall culture of the small-town South in the 60’s has its troubling aspects also. In the end, in spite of human frailties in a world where cruelty and pain threaten to dominate, I hope readers come away from this novel of the human heart considering the power of love and compassion to prevail.
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